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Look to the East: why the eyes of the beauty world are firmly on Japan

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A rich history of the geisha and ancient temple art meets the modernity of a country enraptured by beauty. Stylist’s Joanna McGarry discovers why the eyes of the beauty world are firmly on Japan

If toy shops exist for 32-year-old women, then I have found mine – in Tokyo. Its name is Matsumoto Kiyoshi. It blares out colours of pink, turquoise, lilac and neon yellow. Its ceilings are zinging with white strip lights. And its shelves are stuffed high and wide, with no space in between. I find lip balms with pictures of babies on them splayed out like a pick’n’mix, boxes of pink contact lenses called ‘Princess’, snail juice face packs and ‘Dolly Wink’ false eyelashes. 

There are gels, lotions and essences from brands I’ve heard of – Kosé, Sofina, Cezanne – but never seen. Their labels are written in Japanese, still I want to open and play with them all. I may have just stepped off a 12-hour flight, and be looking through the hazy lens of a nine-hour time difference, but I would quite like to bolt the doors shut and stay inside forever.

In all honesty, I’ve been waiting for this moment for most of my adult life. As a curious, often obsessive beauty editor, I’ve always been captivated by Japan: the discipline of Japanese women and their double-cleansing rituals; the efficiency of their kit; the sponges, cloths and cotton pads; and the clever new formulations that will, eventually, inspire the make-up and skincare products that land on my desk every day. Korean skincare (and that notorious 12-product ritual) may have risen in beauty circles this year but, for me, it’s always been about Japan.

Beauty here is a serious business. The Japanese cosmetics market is the second largest in the world (behind the US) and the biggest skincare market globally, which is set to hit £1.5billion by 2017. Add to that the fact that Japan has the oldest population in the world and it’s clear that this is unlike any other beauty landscape. Beauty brands face the challenge of meeting the needs of an ageing consumer without alienating the younger generation. And it’s a long-standing industry secret that all the big beauty houses – Chanel, Dior and Givenchy – have held Japan on a pedestal for years, tracking the beauty habits of the modern Japanese woman and using their findings as fuel for new and innovative formulations. 

Givenchy’s artistic director for make-up, Nicolas Degennes, has spent the past 15 years taking research trips to Japan to inform his own collections. And I’m here to discover his latest cosmetic oeuvre: Le Rouge Kyoto. In homage to the hand-painted screens of Kyoto’s ancient temples, Degennes teamed up with Hiroto Rakusho – a master of gold and silver leaf – to create unique pieces of art to wrap around 590 hand-made limited-edition lipsticks. Think of them as a piece of precious jewellery in make-up form; no two designs are the same. The lipsticks are the perfect antithesis to the superficial, disposable beauty that screams out from every Tokyo drugstore. And they provide a fitting reminder of the two halves that seem to permeate everything in Japan: a rich cultural history, hiding just beneath the surface, which dances happily alongside a hunger for the bright, the shiny and the new. 

“I’ve learnt a lot about [Japanese women’s] approach to beauty,” Degennes tells me over green tea in Kyoto the following day. “How to play with textures and play with your look. What’s fantastic is how the women here can transform themselves, but in subtle ways.” Indeed, it’s here in Kyoto that the ultimate in Japanese cosmetic transformation first originated: the geisha. 

That night, I am treated to an experience I will never forget: a private ‘odori’ dance from one of Japan’s most legendary geishas. Her name is Ikuko Nadeshiko. And against a backdrop of Japanese wooden screens, she gently shifts into different poses holding both a traditional Japanese lantern and a parasol against her shoulders. After each pose, she tilts her face towards the light, as if to hold it there for her audience to commit her beauty to memory.

Face masks far and wide: inside the shop of Joanna's beauty dreams

Face masks far and wide: inside the shop of Joanna's beauty dreams

Following the performance, we sit down to talk with the help of an interpreter. Ikuko tells me she is 75. My jaw hits the floor. Her skin, pristinely dusted in theatrical white make-up, is virtually line- free. She lets me in on her secret: using camellia oil every day. It’s the only thing capable of dissolving her make-up. It’s this, she says, that has kept her face so plump and smooth. She is immaculate. Her hair – an architectural confection of twists and rolls – is, she declares, a specialised wig. It is phenomenal. No join, no visible lace underlay. Her vermilion lip and calligraphic eyeliner are applied with razor-sharp precision; a skill she learnt from a revered make up artist over the course of three months, some 50 years ago. It takes her 40 minutes to apply with one caveat: if she makes a mistake, she has to wipe it all off and start again.

Still, despite the inherent cosmetic theatre of the geisha, thick swathes of make-up have become anathema for the modern Japanese woman. The prevailing Japanese beauty ideal now goes far beyond skin deep. “It’s not so much about looking good from the outside, as showing the natural radiant beauty of the inside, too,” says Meyumi Yamada, executive director at @Cosme, the leading beauty e-tailer in Japan, over tempura the following day. Around five years ago, colour cosmetics were rife, she says. Smoky eyes and conspicuously painted lips were the norm, but a renewed focus on the traditional values of humility and grace have swayed the beauty agenda back towards the pure, the real and the delicate.

“We change the type of make-up for the evening, but not necessarily to a smoky eye or anything like that,” adds Yamada. “Usually, this will be just a little more mascara, a soft grey eyeshadow, or a little more colour tothe lips and cheeks.”

We shoot back to Tokyo on the bullet train and, pacing the Shibuya district streets, I see a steady stream of gloriously radiant complexions, pinched glossy cheeks and feathery (but never fake-looking) lashes walking down the streets. In fact, I don’t see a single red lip, no obvious contouring or elaborate winged liner the entire time I am in Japan. I never see a brow hair out of place, a tell-tale foundation tide mark, nor a single ill-blended splodge of eyeshadow. The result is refined, elegant and feminine.

Unthinkingly, the next morning I eschew my daily habit of bold red lipstick and work some gentle accents of taupe and rose pink into my make-up. I feel a bit prettier. Softer. More feminine, somehow. I head to Isetan, Tokyo’s leading department store for beauty, to meet with Masako Irizuki, chief beauty buyer, to unpick the Japanese beauty ideal some more. “If [Japanese women] think they have beautiful skin, they feel less troubled,” she says. “It’s not because of how they look to other people, it’s about feeling a happiness within themselves.”

And what they may lack in cosmetic variety, they more than make up for in flawless application. While hordes of British women (myself included) haven’t touched blusher for years, there isn’t a single woman I spot in Japan without her own veil of pink petal rose across her cheeks. It is doll-like – almost child-like – and as refined as crystal. But this isn’t about a desire to appear young or as their teenage selves, I’m told. Japanese women simply want to look fresh and healthy – and blusher is the fastest ticket to that destination.

Joanna meets geisha Ikuko Nadeshiko to discover her beauty secrets

Joanna meets geisha Ikuko Nadeshiko to discover her beauty secrets

“We have a term, ‘koshoku’, which means blood-coloured or naturally flushed,” Yamada explains. “It’s a natural kind of make-up style – blood colour is natural colour – so the blusher colour should suit the natural tones of the skin and look as though you are blushing from the inside.”

For the past two years, there has been a huge sway towards the use of blusher, a trend started by a make-up artist called Ikali. “It’s called the ‘Ikali’ face,” adds Yamada. Blusher is applied directly under the eyes, for the dual benefit of covering over dark circles and portraying a “kind impression to others”.

Kind? I’ve heard of wanting to look more empowered, sexier, more intelligent through make-up, but kind? In a world which has become increasingly insular and solitary, the very idea that make-up could signal a sense of tenderness and kindness to others feels entirely new  and oddly endearing.

Don’t be fooled, though. This softly-softly approach to beauty is about aesthetics only. These women work hard at looking this way. They research beauty with the same fervour a botanist would a plant. “Japanese women want to create their ideal self,” says Yamada. “They are virtually creating their ideal face, but they don’t want to show that there is a lot of work behind it.” Yamada’s website is testament to that. @Cosme hosts 12 million reader-generated beauty product reviews and counting. It’s the first port of call, beyond magazines or even social media, for women to gather information on the latest foundation or skin essence. This approach to sharing beauty know-how is key and it speaks of a certain sense of democracy among Japanese women; a belief that beauty should be open to all.

And it’s clearly working for them. I’ve travelled to New York, Paris and Rio de Janeiro in the name of discovering the next big thing in beauty and have never seen women like this. They look like ethereal beings. During my days in Japan, I find myself studying their faces for flaws – zits, sun spots, fines lines – and find nothing. Because, here in Japan, it is impossible to distinguish a 40-year-old from a 30-year-old woman, or even where her skin stops and her make-up begins. It’s flawless; almost celestial.

And while it’s often naively presumed that Japanese women look to Western ideals of beauty to inform their look, switching on the TV in the hotel room that evening, I realise this couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t stumble across a single Western channel – no MTV, no bad American rom-coms. Japanese culture, I realise, inspires Japanese beauty culture, and those myths about cosmetic surgery to ‘Westernise’ facial features suddenly sound as ludicrous as they are unfounded.

In Japan there is a new reverence for an innate Japanese appearance. “For our mothers’ generation after the Second World War, it was the blonde American Caucasian woman who was considered the ultimate beauty ideal, but now it’s far more natural than that,” Irizuki says. “Now there are so many TV celebrities who are of mixed heritage that the natural Japanese appearance is becoming more desirable.”

Having unpicked the skincare and make-up ethos of Japanese women, there was one final vestige of beauty that I hadn’t yet explored: the spa. With a few hours to kill before I head to the airport, I attempt to book myself in for a traditional onsen bathing ritual – bathing nude in a volcanic hot spring, a tradition that dates back to 552AD with the arrival of Buddhism to Japan – but am politely told this isn’t going to be possible: tattoos are firmly prohibited. I’m secretly relieved. Public nudity has never been on my list of Fun Things To Do For An Afternoon. Instead, I head to the drugstores of the Ginza shopping district, mentally surveying the amount of space left in my suitcase.

Still, more than the strawberry-shaped face masks, cleansing powder sachets and fine dolly lashes I brought home, it’s the women of Japan who stick in my mind. Though the lights of Tokyo may scream in neon, the women are the picture of elegance, composure and a quiet sophistication that’s completely entrancing. I pack myself and my drugstore haul onto the flight back to London. Stashed inside my in-flight washbag are a rose-water gel spray and a packet of pastel-pink under-eye masks. I sit back, spritz my face and get that giddy feeling that a five-year-old would with a new doll to dress. And it’s wonderful. 

Master ethereal-looking Japanese make-up with these key products, below:


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